Comment: England’s leaders must set aside party advantage

By Dr Stephen Barber

It's time someone showed the sort of leadership over England that Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling showed over Scotland.

The constitutional arrangements of Britain are important. This was highlighted emphatically during the Scottish Independence campaign by the concerted efforts of Westminster parties to maintain the Union. But in the hours and days to follow the 'No' result, party leaders have reverted to type, putting narrow party advantage ahead of our constitutional future.

It's all very clear why David Cameron favours a simple 'English votes for English matters' while Ed Miliband wants a 'kick the can down the road' Constitutional Convention. Labour's parliamentary strength will suffer if Scottish MPs are emasculated while the Conservatives would more often command Commons majorities on domestic votes. All well and good, but it's no way to draft a constitution.

Cameron is right that the English settlement needs to be considered alongside new powers for Holyrood and Miliband is right that the situation is more complex than enshrining two classes of MPs. Given that these politicians were clear that the referendum vote was a very different consideration from choosing a government, the same surely must be true of sorting out England's constitution. The answer, it would seem, is to think about powers and structures separately and set a firm timetable for reform.

Defining powers is fairly straightforward since England needs the same say over its affairs that Scotland will enjoy under the new extension of devolution promised during the campaign. The English need to have a direct say over education, health, transport, welfare, the environment and the rest. And this power should be balanced by the responsibility to raise taxation.

There is little appetite amongst either the political classes or in the electorate for major new political institutions and new politicians in the form of an English parliament. Miliband ruled that out in a recent interview. While that might be a shame, the new settlement can't simply be about Westminster throwing more cash at poorer areas of the UK. It has to be about devolving power and accountabilities.

If a new layer of government is out, then we have to look to existing structures. Here the obvious path to a 'balanced settlement' could be in a combination of cities and counties. Empowering the great and small metropolitan areas along the lines of London could invigorate parts of the country Westminster finds it hard to reach and give a boost to local economies. Accompanied by an empowerment of the existing (though low profile) county councils would herald a new dawn for local government. But it has to mean real power devolved from the centre.

There is something else to think about. The House of Lords is a creaking constitutional mess. Appointed by the prime minister of the day, packed with donors and party hacks and now too big to function, it needs sorting out. There is an opportunity to give the upper house democratic legitimacy, slim it down considerably and weave its function as a revising chamber into the new constitutional settlement of the whole of the UK.

It doesn't look like the 'English Question' is going to be answered in a hurry. Such a situation is unsurprising since Britain's constitution almost always changes in a haphazard fashion with little by way of plan or design. But it doesn't need to be that way. Isn't it time the London elite put aside party advantage in the same way Scottish politicians did recently? Strong political leadership could forge a positive settlement in England that would serve us well for generations.  And it can be done in months rather than decades.

Dr Stephen Barber is reader in public policy at London South Bank University and has published on constitutional matters. @StephenBarberUK

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